Book Review: Let’s Get Free

Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice by Paul Butler

Paul Butler, an ambitious federal prosecutor and Harvard Law grad, mixes politics, law, and Hip-Hop philosophy in his first book after leaving his high profile job in the Justice Department to raise awareness for the huge flaws he witnessed in America’s criminal and judicial processes. Prison over-crowding, confidential informants, racial profiling, and plea bargaining are just some of the issues Butler takes-on with his unique view of the system.

Chapter 1: The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game: A Prosecutor Meets American Criminal Justice. After his career as a federal prosecutor begins to take off, Butler gets to see what the American Judicial process looks like from the other side. After a verbal argument with a female neighbor over a parking space, he is falsely accused of assaulting her and arrested. During his trial and eventual acquittal the author learns some very important lessons about the justice system he works for. Number 1- cops lie all the time. As a prosecutor Butler was encouraged to accept police bending the truth because it helped him win cases, but when they did it to him as he sat on trial as a defendant he saw its destructive force. Number 2- the system is set up for you to plead guilty. Although Butler claimed his innocence to everyone from the start, official after official, step after step, he was told to plea to a lesser charge and not to take it to trial. The lesson was, even if you are innocent of the crime you are accused of, it’s easier for everyone to just plea to lesser charge and be on your way, leaving justice un-served. 

Chapter 2: Safety First: Why Mass Incarceration Matters. Perhaps the best chapter and argument in the book that Butler writes is the imminent importance he puts on solving the problem of mass incarceration. An abundance of arrests and imprisonment, as the author puts it, doesn’t make us safer, if fact, it make us more unsafe. How? By making arrests and jail time common occurrences that are almost expected from us, you make society as a whole more desensitized to the idea. It becomes not such a big deal to go to prison because everywhere you look, someone you know is getting locked-up. A main reason Butler cites for the problem: the war on drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences, crack cocaine laws, and punishment over treatment (whether on purpose or not) is the main cause for the booming prison population, especially among poor communities of color.   

Chapter 3: Justice on Drugs. Butler starts this section with the quote, “when I became a prosecutor I promised myself that would not smoke marijuana anymore.” The point is: who hasn’t used drugs? Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama did. With a society that uses narcotics so fluently while making huge profits from them, it seems almost blatantly hypocritical to treat non-violent users and sellers the same way we treat rapists and murderers. Imagine if we arrested every alcoholic and the bartenders that served them… This has lead to our huge prison population. Butler states very plainly that drug prohibition doesn’t and won’t work and that we should end the “war on drugs” decriminalize and begin to treat it as the public health issue that it really is. After we do this most (not all) of the crime that accompanies drug problems like spread of disease, gang/drug dealer violence, mass incarceration, etc.     

Chapter 4: Jury Duty: Power to the People. One way that the author explores to use the system against itself is by the use of “jury nullification.” The idea is very simple: a young man from your neighborhood is arrest for a non-violent victimless crime. You are placed on the jury that will decide whether or not to convict him. Although the prosecution proves without a doubt that the youth is guilty, you know in your heart and mind that sending this man to prison is not the answer to solving the problem. As a result you use all of your power as a juror to find the defendant not guilty and set him free. This, technically, is not a crime. As long as a juror wasn’t bribed or threatened, they are welcome to vote however they want, no matter how strong the evidence is to the contrary. Racist whites used jury nullification to free other whites accused of crimes against minorities. Today, Butler feels, it can be a good way to curb the massive amount of arrests and guilty convictions of our community’s youth.

Chapter 5: Patriot Acts: Don’t Be a Snitch, Do Be a Witness, and Don’t Always Help the Police. In this part of the book we delve into the dirty underworld of snitches (and the cops that rely on them). Butler takes the stance that law enforcement depends too much on the word of informants that, many times, give them bad information. He gives the example of an elderly woman in Atlanta who, because of misinformation from a snitch, was killed by SWAT officers after she, mistaking them for burglars, shot at them. The book explains that police use snitches as easy replacements for investigation and creating ties with the community in order to gather evidence. To clarify, Butler says he believes there is a difference between snitches and witnesses: A snitch is someone who, to save themselves from arrest or jail time, give information to police about whatever can. A witness is someone who saw a specific crime get committed and agrees to testify on what they saw.

Chapter 6: Should Good People Be Prosecutors? Butler states in an earlier chapter, “I became a prosecutor because I hate bullies. I stopped being a prosecutor because I hate bullies.” This statement describes the point being made in this section, where Butler wrestles with the complexities of wanting justice in an unjust society. He became a prosecutor to bring justice to the people and in the end learned that the justice system was the biggest perpetrator of injustice. The most telling part of this narrative is when the author tells would-be district attorneys that no matter who they envision prosecuting, for the most part they will be poor people for street crimes, and the amount of those people you put behind bars will determine the how successful your career is.  

Chapter 7: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. In this part of the book the reader is given a brief history of Hip-Hop  music and the political message its culture has spread. Points of view such as “I’m broke and hungry, why shouldn’t I sell drugs or rob someone,” “the system enslaved, exploited, and murdered my people, why should I care about anything,” and “the government is the biggest criminal of all, why should I go to prison” are just some examples of how Hip-Hop has shed light on underrepresented voices outside of mainstream culture. Hip-Hop has influenced a lot of people in multiple generations and many of those people are now in the workforce, even as federal prosecutors. Butler uses lines from Nas, Jay-Z, Dead Prez, DMX, KRS-One, Gang Starr, Mos-Def, Kanye West, Biggie Smalls, Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, Outkast, Immortal Technique, Public Enemy, and of course 2Pac to describe Hip-Hop’s political philosophy.

Chapter 8: Droppin’ Science: High-Tech Justice. In this chapter the author discusses electronic monitoring, surveillance, and other technology as a means of obtaining better justice. At some points Butler is sure to say that he is just discussing these technologies and not always advocating their use. He states that these new additions to law enforcement are on their way whether we like it or not, the best we can do is educate ourselves about them and be part of the debate. Other new tech-tricks being looked into by officials and discussed in this book include microchip implant monitoring, “e-noses” that can smell any drug from a mile away, drugs that stop drug addiction, brain scan lie-detector tests, and looking into the “criminal gene.” Butler says that while some of these are scary to think about, they can actually decrease police harassment, false arrests, and mass incarceration.    

Chapter 9: The Beautiful Struggle: Seven Ways to Take Back Justice. The book’s conclusion gives us 7 steps that can be taken by individuals, communities, and governments to change the world: 1- Pay a kid to finish high school. Graduating high school can be a huge deterrent to being involved in criminal activity and we should be doing everything we can for our youth. 2- Take it to the courthouse. Practice “jury nullification” and educate yourself on laws and the court system. 3- Get the lead out. There is a possible link between violent behavior and lead exposure, if we extract lead from buildings and public places crime will go down. 4- “Hug a Thug.” Use community and family support as a way to prevent drug addiction, gang involvement, and other criminal activity. 5- End racial profiling. There will never be a foundation of trust between communities of color and law enforcement until it stops. 6- Make punishment fit the crime. Give lower sentences and provide other means of help for drug addicts and other kinds of non-violent criminals.7- Free 500,000 Americans. Release a half a million prisoners who are currently serving time for drug, non-violent, and other victimless crimes.

Let’s Get Free gives readers a firsthand account of the inner-workings of the American judicial process from a Hip-Hop inspired point of view. Butler further brings to light issues that Hip-Hop has, for decades, tried to bring to the country’s attention by relating it to what he has learned as a federal prosecutor and later as a black man who is arrested and falsely accused. The Hip-Hop generation needs more of its members to share their unique insight and add volume to the growing cultural philosophy that Hip-Hop has nurtured. Some solutions offered by Butler to our country’s biggest problems is that they rely too heavily on the system that creates those problems in the first place. Sitting on a jury, testifying in court, and creating better crime-fighting technology seem to fit too well into the current system and lack the power to revolutionarily change it. Other suggestions such as releasing prisoners, decriminalizing drugs, and not always cooperating with law enforcement seem like better ideas that the Hip-Hop generation can get behind.        


Categories: Book Review, Drug War/Laws, Legal/Know Your Rights, Political Theory

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1 reply

  1. I interview a young man who has used Heroin most of his life he recently relapsed after eleven month’s clean time this video is quite graphic

    The Harsh Reality of Drug Addiction

    Next we have a woman named Lisa she has been on all the current Harm reduction program’s available in Vancouver’s Downtown eastside
    this is a sad sad story this poor woman only has her addiction to look forward to in her life

    Last but not least we interviewed more woman who talk about the pro’s and con’s of Heroin vs. Methadone

    You be the judge the whole reason for these videos is to bring some truth out about the addiction support services that are in use here in Vancouver. My research has been on a personal level for over twenty five years in addiction as well as these and many more video interviews. Thank you recovered addict

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